Puerto Rico, a Nation of Women (OPINION)

Mar 23, 2022
4:40 PM

Women protesting against former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 22, 2019. (AP Photo/Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo)

As early as 1900, the Boricua feminist and labor leader Luisa Capetillo wrote that Puerto Rico was a nation of women who wore the trousers, and little has changed since then.

Women now account for more than half of the archipelago’s population and are spearheading —especially the young women— an unstoppable revolution, one that will change the island’s future and elevate its society towards intersectionality and greater awareness of how social and political identities combine to create discrimination and privilege.

It will also honor the early Puerto Rican feminists that began the fight for gender and race equality on the island more than a century ago.

The first woman in Puerto Rico to wear trousers in public, Capetillo’s style was fierce: a full-length lace and linen coat over trouserettes that hit just above the ankle and cinched at the waist. She cut a formidable and unique figure. Her wardrobe sent a message about gender equality—over one hundred years ago.  

In 1915, Capetillo was arrested as she strolled down the streets of Havana, Cuba wearing her favorite pantalones. Causing a “scandal,” she was tossed in jail for a bit but made bail. The judge agreed with her that it was her civil right to wear trousers on the outside, not covered by her coat, like men. She did not comport herself as a mother or housekeeper, as were the roles expected of Puerto Rican women.

Thank God for that.

Capetillo was not just a revolutionary fashion icon, who wore trousers well before Mexican painter Frida Kahlo did the same in a family portrait. Capetillo was a feminist, anarchist, journalist, and labor union leader who fought for the working class, women, and children. She believed in free love and considered organized religion a gulag.

Capetillo is also remembered for pointing out how the island’s disastrous economy was a result of erroneous government policies and predatory banking. This after an earthquake in 1918 crippled the island and the United States dragged its feet to help.

Sound familiar?

Capetillo is one in the pantheon of Puerto Rican women who were fearless at a time when being a fearless woman was dangerous. Some of the others are María de la Mercedes Barbudo, born in or around 1773, the first female independentista who lived before Ramón Emeterio Betances and Eugenio María de Hostos; Juana Colón, a Black suffragist and working-class heroine; and Mariana Bracetti, leader and patriot of the independence movement who knitted the first official flag of Puerto Rico.

Then there are feminists like poet Julia de Burgos, who in the 1940s wrote about Blackness, love, migration, nationalism, and nature; and Lolita Lebrón, who in 1954 (together with three men) opened fire inside the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C to protest Puerto Rico’s colonial status. Or fighters like Blanca Canales, Ana Roque de Duprey, Adolfina Villanueva, among others.

The struggle is not new. Luisa Capetillo put on pants, but today, tens of thousands of Puerto Rican women are taking equally revolutionary steps, not just wearing the pants but leading the fight for structural change in work, education, marriage, and religion. They are the feminists on the front line of social justice.

I spoke to several Puerto Rican women who live in the islands and are involved in the feminist movement about how it is opening spaces to effect change.

“When we speak about women (in Puerto Rico), we must speak about this overwhelming specter that represents being a woman in a colonial context, in an impoverished country, with racial diversity and profound inequities,” said María de Lourdes Santiago, vice-president of the Puerto Rican Independence Party and a member of the Puerto Rico Senate.

Women have advanced in terms of legal issues, Santiago said, “but it is the other inequities that are still perpetuated in the institutions, in the government. Look at the controversy around the issue of gender.”

In 2020, the total population of Puerto Rico amounted to nearly 3.2 million inhabitants. The number of women on the island exceeded the number of men by approximately 170,000. That means women comprise 52.6 percent of the island’s population, but they cannot even ensure their own safety due to gender-based violence.

The same year, at least 60 women died horrific deaths due to gender violence, a 62 percent increase compared to 2019, according to the civil rights coalition Observatorio de Equidad de Género.

Elsewhere, this level of violence targeted against a specific group of people would be causing a public uproar in the media. But the media, and the island’s conservative government, are afraid to name the violence for what it is—gender-based.

“There is fear to name gender violence —forget about addressing it— to afford it resources, to give it a name,” Santiago said. “To recognize that there are still those mortal remnants of inequality that are so cruel, so harsh, so hard.”

Refusing to recognize and name gender violence for what it is —a legacy of the oppression of women, the demand that women remain subservient and skirted— fails to acknowledge the host of social and cultural diseases consuming the nation.

Santiago confirms this assertion. “After gender comes everything else—the issue of class conflicts, the issue of inequality, the issue of race that is so important in this country and we don’t see it,” she said.

The inequities are felt most powerfully by the young.

Young Boricuas, especially young women, have grown up with gender violence and inequality; a $70 billion debt; a fiscal control board; cuts to education, pensions, health services; the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and María; earthquakes; corrupt governments; a pandemic; and now the gentrification of the island that threatens to marginalize Puerto Ricans in their homeland—all of which has fueled a population decline that exceeds the Great Migration.

For older Boricuas, maybe it feels like the time for struggle and resistance has passed. Many of a certain generation fear a change. But for the young, this is the moment.

“The generation that is developing a political conscience today is the generation that grew up without the hope of material prosperity and with the fear that they would have to leave their country because there is nothing there with which to build a life,” Santiago said. “I see the young people naturally taking on this complexity and this diversity, embracing what it represents and that is excellent news, I believe.”

This is the generation of “Cacerola Girl,” who famously confronted riot police alone by banging a pot, and the generación de “Yo no me dejo” (the generation of “I won’t allow it”),  radicalized by what they have lived through. They took to the streets in record numbers and brought down the pro-statehood government of then-Gov. Ricardo Rosselló in the summer of 2019 and continue to fight against the present pro-statehood and conservative governor Pedro Pierlusi—elected with only 32 percent of the votes.

The feminist movement is a sorority born of painful events, with bonds woven together by domestic violence, discrimination, marginalization, and inequality. And it is sad to add that part of the fight is against other women upholding the status quo.

“It is important to also understand what the organized right in Puerto Rico represents and that is being seen in a lot of issues,” Santiago said. “It is the same people that reject the advancement of the issue of gender, reject the rights of workers (men and women), promote privatization, abandon public education and public health.”

“Right now, in the Senate, the majority are women and one can’t define this Senate as a vanguard Senate, one that looks to move forward or (be) progressive,” she added. “Because there are also women there that are willing to play the role of gatilleras (handmaidens) of inequality, something that is very complex and very hard for the rest of the women. But these women are also there.”

These women do not define themselves as feminists —one might be as bold as to say they are anti-feminist— nor do they embrace the key tenets of the feminist movement, namely equality.

After living through the events of the past years, progressive Boricua women have realized that they must seize the mantle and make change.

In response, the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción (Feminist Collective in Construction) shaped a new way to fight against gender-based violence in Puerto Rico, beginning on International Women’s Day in 2017, when members of the Colectiva blocked traffic along a major metropolitan expressway.

“In 2017, the feminist struggle in Puerto Rico was transformed,” Edda López, a Puerto Rican feminist activist, told me. “And it was transformed because the Colectiva Feminista en Construcción was born out of the frustration of younger women that questioned the commitment of the state to validate what was happening to women.”

“That is why they (the Colectivo) emerged. That is why a different struggle emerged and then we did things that no one had dared to do (blocking traffic),” she said. “Women understood that all that was left was ourselves. We found that we had our voice and that the voice that had been used before maybe helped us, but didn’t represent us.”

“And later, when the hurricane (María) hit, these same women realized that what held the country together were the women,” she added.

The most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, Hurricane María utterly devastated the island, and the negligence of the Trump administration in its aftermath caused the death of almost 3,000 Boricuas.

These events transformed feminism on the island. Today, feminism is a far more intersectional movement. It rejects the inadequacies of what has historically been a predominantly white woman’s movement that denied issues of race, sexuality and social class, and now includes representation of other underrepresented groups.

But there is still a long way to go.

After more than two years of struggle, these grassroots feminists forced Gov. Pierluisi to declare a state of emergency for gender-based violence. Now, they must police it.

“In general, I would say that the Puerto Rican feminist movement has been growing,” Bárbara I. Abadía-Rexach, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Latina/o studies at San Francisco State University, told me. “This new generation of women brings to the fight a different set of perspectives, other conversations. There are intersectionalities blooming. But, even now, practices of power, colorism, anti-Black racism persist and these have not been addressed adequately.”

“A large part of what I would like to think is different is that more women are understanding that they are not alone,” said Kimberly Figueroa Calderon, a 31-year-old afro-feminist, anti-racist trainer, and community organizer from the Colectivo Ile. “It’s no longer just one woman airing a grievance of her own experience, but a group on a national level that shares the experience and defends it like it was theirs. And without a doubt, I think that technology and social media have marked a difference in the reach of communication and the development of educational content that also sensitizes the masses that use them.”

Today, Cacerola Girl continues to stand on the front lines (and on social media) confronting riot police and being pelted and gassed. Others, younger and older feminists, are doing behind-the-scenes work in their communities.

These young women are doing more than rocking the boat; they are fighting to change the landscape. They are, like Luisa Capetillo and others before them, wearing the scandalous pantalones.

“For me, it was very difficult to open up spaces and 20-something years later, young women are having the same difficulty,” Santiago said.

“We have to build a new country,” she continued. “The putrefaction of the institutions, the discrediting of the state as a concept, the feeling of being handicapped that so many people feel—these are grave ills and we have to confront them with anger, but also with joy and love.”

The tipping point will be in 2024, when this new generation of women goes to the ballot boxes —many for the first time— and become the change the feminist movement has been fighting for.


Susanne Ramírez de Arellano_monicafelix-7 (1)Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Dos Caminos y Una Subversiva. Comments can be sent to her email. Twitter: @DurgaOne